The shape, the length, and kayak type all have an impact on how well the boat is going to run in different kinds of water. It also has a big impact on how well it’s going to track (hold a straight line between paddles) and its speed.
But the kayak materials have an even greater impact on how a kayak is going to perform. Below, we’ll answer the question: “What are kayaks made of?”
We’ll also highlight the benefits and drawbacks of these various materials.
Popular Kayak Materials
Plastic (Polyethylene) Kayaks
Plastic kayaks — sometimes called rotomolded polyethylene kayaks — have been popular kinds of touring kayaks since they first started popping up in the early 1970s.
To make these kayaks, plastic pellets are poured directly into hollow metal hull molds. The gel-coated mold is then heated evenly inside a huge oven and rotated, this process is called rotational molding, allowing the molten plastic polyethylene material to fill the entire mold.
After the kayak has had a little time to cool down, it is popped out of the mold. The finished kayak then needs very little extra work to get it water-ready.
Perfect for beginners, a rotomolded plastic kayak is almost always the type of kayak first-time buyers gravitate to. The inexpensive price point doesn’t hurt!
The polyethylene plastic used in rotomolded kayaks is super robust. This is the kind of plastic material type you’re going to find in car body panels, food containers, and all kinds of industrial applications.
Polyethylene kayaks are generally pretty good for all water conditions. They are versatile, super affordable, and maybe the most durable recreational boats on the market today.
Rotomolded plastic kayaks are incredibly durable because they are so thick and heavy, which means they are not light to transport and carry.
On top of that, every dent, every ding, and every abrasion on the surface of your kayak is going to end up creating (at least a little) drag. That drag compounds over time and your kayak might not track as straight as it did before — and it certainly won’t be as quick in the water, either.
ABS thermoform kayaks are another great option for folks that want a highly versatile, relatively affordable, and significantly lighter kayak that works in pretty much any water.
This kayak construction process uses vacuum power to suck heated plastic sheets over and around a kayak mold. The sheet material is made up of impact-resistant ABS plastic with a very thin protective layer of acrylic on the outer edge.
The end result is that most plastic kayaks are relatively lightweight, durable, and straight tracking, and they won’t break your bank account.
You get a lot of the same benefits from ABS thermoform kayaks that you are going to get out of a rotomolded plastic kayak, but with up to a 30% weight reduction due to the other materials used in its construction.
The only real drawback to this kind of kayak is that it looks a lot faster than it actually is in the water.
Sure, that outer layer of acrylic material is going to provide a much tougher surface than rotomolded plastic. And it certainly looks fast.
Unfortunately, though, these kayaks almost always aren’t as quick as carbon fiber or fiberglass kayaks — even if their deck and hull share the same shiny look.
It’s tough to beat the convenience of inflatable kayaks! You don’t even need a roof rack to transport these handy boats.
Essentially “kayak socks” made out of poly and nylon blend materials (most of the time), these kayaks can be blown up the same way that pool toys and boat tubes can be — though usually a little bit faster!
The blended materials are strong and resilient, giving you a kayak that offers fantastic performance in a lot of water situations. These might not necessarily be the sea kayaks you want to take on any real waves or whitewater rapids, but flat water and even bumpy water on a busy summer lake aren’t going to be a problem for inflatables.
If you have very limited space in your home (or apartment/condo), it’s tough to beat the stowability and portability of inflatable kayaks when compared to their fiberglass counterparts.
You can have a full-sized (12-foot to 14-foot) kayak tucked away inside of a backpack when not in use, blowing the whole thing up to full-size in about 60 seconds or less. And you can hit the water straight away!
Complex inflatable kayaks with unique geometry, specialized construction techniques, and durable material (including fiberglass cloth) can be designed with tear resistance to withstand tougher water. These aren’t just recreational kayaks, but can be built for performance as well.
Obviously, inflatable kayaks are going to be a little bit of a riskier proposition when you consider taking them down rapid rivers or streams. You may want to invest in repair kits to keep you covered in the event of a snag or tear; fiberglass tape is a versatile repair tool that can fix a variety of issues.
You always have to be on the lookout for sharp rocks, sharp sticks, and submerged branches. These are best left on big water (lakes, ponds, and maybe close to the shore out in the ocean).
Fiberglass and Carbon Fiber Kayaks
If you have a decent budget to spend on a premium kayak, the chances are pretty good it’s going to be made of fiberglass or carbon fiber (or some kind of composite material, anyway).
These hardshell kayaks are made for extreme performance.
Many of the best whitewater kayaks are built out of these materials, as are boats made for sea kayaking and kayaks built to race in all different kinds of conditions.
Super lightweight, really strong, and surprisingly durable, these kayaks are going to set you back a pretty penny — but most feel they are worth every cent the first time that they dip them into the water.
Composite materials tend to be stiffer than other options, allowing composite kayaks to track much straighter and be much faster than other choices.
You can get a composite kayak to react to each individual paddle stroke much faster (and much more efficiently) than you can with pretty much anything else.
Most of the “surface damage” to a composite boat can be patched up with next to no extra effort, no special tools, and maybe 15 minutes of YouTube research.
Best of all, though, is just how foolishly light these kayaks are thanks to the synthetic composite construction of their deck and hull.
Even the super long kayaks built for racing, tandem operations, or kayaking out in rough ocean water are going to feel like a feather.
Prepare yourself for the extreme sticker shock that composite kayaks bring to the table. Seriously.
Composite kayaks are going to be some of the most expensive options on the market today. You’re going to have to pony up a decent chunk of change to get your hands on even the least expensive options in this class.
There’s something really beautiful about wooden kayaks, especially if you’re an advanced wood worker who has taken the time to build one yourself.
Wooden kayaks have a totally unique look and feel to them. They also happen to be super light, super responsive, and some of the most versatile options you’ll find on the market today.
A strip built kayak, a boat made out of thin strips of wood, is possibly the most time-consuming vessel to build. Strip built boats are typically covered with an epoxy resin to seal the wood and provide UV resistance.
If you have the opportunity to build one of these yourself, make sure you set aside a couple of months to tackle the manual assembly process, as these kayaks are made over the course of many months. The rewards, though, are going to be immense when you launch a craft you created by hand!
Straight out of the gate, wooden kayaks are some of the most beautiful crafts on the water today.
On top of that, wooden construction materials are typically lighter than other common kayak materials. You can shave a lot of weight off of wooden boats that are the exact same size as rotomolded plastic or ABS kayaks — and get some other nice performance boosts, too.
The outer wood layer on these kayaks makes them highly responsive to your paddle controls. They track really straight and are quick in the water.
If you aren’t going to go the DIY route you’re probably going to have to spend a mountain of money on kayak construction — especially if you want a premium design or premium materials.
Secondly, you’re going to have to sort of baby this kayak.
Even though the outer surface (the one that comes in contact with water) is protected by fiberglass, resin, and other materials, wood is really unforgiving when it comes into physical contact with rocks, branches, and other hard objects.
All the dents and dings on your kayak’s hull are pretty much going to live there forever unless you strip off the outer layer and refinish the kayak from top to bottom.
What kayak material is the strongest?
Most modern kayaks are really strong and resilient, but composite materials and rotomolded plastic take the cake in this department.
Expensive hard shell kayaks made from rotomolded plastic are pretty much “bombproof”, but you sacrifice real performance. Composite materials, like those used in a fiberglass kayak, are strong and stiff, but you’re going to have to pay up big time for the performance enhancements they offer.
What kinds of kayaks are the most affordable?
Rotomolded and ABS kayaks are easily the most affordable options you’ll find at the kayak shop. These are perfect for beginners, especially those looking to use their kayaks in all kinds of water situations.
Can you take a wooden kayak into whitewater?
There’s certainly no rules to say you can’t take a wooden kayak into whitewater situations, but you might be a little bit crazy to dent and ding up a beautiful piece of functional art like this on that kind of adventure.
Consider using your wooden kayak on flat water only. Leave the “rough stuff” to kayaks that are built for that kind of excursion.